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Authors: Cornel West

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This complex relation of cultural hybridity and critical sensibility (or jazz and democracy) raises interesting questions. If Malcolm X feared cultural hybridity, to what degree or in what sense was he a serious democrat? Did he believe that the cure to the egregious ills of a racist American “democracy” was more democracy that included black people? Did his relative silence regarding the monarchies he visited in the Middle East bespeak a downplaying of the role of democratic practices in empowering oppressed peoples? Was his fear of cultural hybridity partly rooted in his own reluctance to come to terms with his own personal hybridity, for example, his “redness,” light skin, close white friends, etc.?

Malcolm X's fear of cultural hybridity rests upon two political concerns: that cultural hybridity downplayed the vicious character of white supremacy and that cultural hybridity intimately linked the destinies of black and white people such that the possibility of black freedom was far-fetched. His fundamental focus on the varieties, subtleties, and cruelties of white racism made him suspicious of any discourse about cultural hybridity. Furthermore, those figures who were most eloquent and illuminating about black cultural hybridity in the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, were political integrationists. Such a position seemed to pass over too quickly the physical terror and psychic horror of being black in America. To put it bluntly, Malcolm X identified much more with the mind-set of Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas in
Native Son
than with that of Ralph Ellison's protagonist in
Invisible Man.

Malcolm X's deep pessimism about the capacity and possibility of white Americans to shed their racism led him, ironically, to downplay the past and present bonds between blacks and whites. For if the two groups were, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, locked into “one garment of destiny,” then the very chances for black freedom were nil. This deep pessimism also rendered Malcolm X ambivalent about American democracy—for if the majority were racist how could the black minority ever be free? Malcolm X's definition of a “nigger” was “a victim of American democracy”—had not the
democracy of the United States made black people noncitizens or anticitizens of the Republic? Of course, the aim of a constitutional democracy is to safeguard the rights of the minority and avoid the tyranny of the majority. Yet the concrete practice of the U.S. legal system from 1883 to 1964 promoted a tyranny of the white majority much more than a safeguarding of the rights of black Americans. In fact, these tragic facts drove Malcolm X to look elsewhere for the promotion and protection of black people's rights—to institutions such as the United Nations or the Organization of African Unity. One impulse behind his internationalization of the black freedom struggle in the United States was a deep pessimism about America's will to racial justice, no matter how democratic America was or is.

In addition, Malcolm X's fear of cultural hybridity was linked to his own personal hybridity (he was the grandson of a white man), which blurred the very boundaries so rigidly policed by white supremacist authorities. For Malcolm X, the distinctive feature of American culture was not its cross-cultural syncretism but rather the enforcement of a racial caste system that defined any product of this syncretism as abnormal, alien, and other to both black and white communities. Like Garvey, Malcolm X saw such hybridity, for example, mulattoes, as symbols of weakness and confusion. The very idea of not “fitting in” the U.S. discourse of positively valued whiteness and negatively debased blackness meant one was subject to exclusion and marginalization by whites and blacks. For Malcolm X, in a racist society, this was a form of social death.

One would think that Malcolm X's second conversion, in 1964, to Orthodox Islam might have allayed his fear of cultural hybridity. Yet there seems to be little evidence that he revised his understanding of the radically culturally hybrid character of black life. Furthermore, his deep pessimism toward American democracy continued after his second conversion—though it was no longer based on mythological grounds but solely on the historical experience of Africans in the modern world. It is no accident that the nonblack persons Malcolm X encountered who helped change his mind about the capacity of white people to be human were outside of America and Europe, Muslims in the Middle East. Needless to say, for him, the most striking feature of these Islamic regimes was not their undemocratic practices but rather their acceptance of his black humanity. This great prophet of black rage—with all his brilliance, courage, and conviction—remained blind to basic structures of domination based on class, gender, and sexual orientation in the Middle East.

contemporary focus on Malcolm X, especially among black youth, can be understood as both the open articulation of black rage (as in film videos and on tapes targeted at whites, Jews, Koreans, black women, black men, and others) and as a desperate attempt to channel this rage into something more than a marketable commodity for the culture industry. The young black generation are up against forces of death, destruction, and disease unprecedented in the everyday life of black urban people. The raw reality of drugs and guns, despair and decrepitude, generates a raw rage that, among past black spokespersons, only Malcolm X's speech approximates. Yet the issue of psychic conversion, cultural hybridity, black supremacy, authoritarian organization, borders and boundaries in sexuality, and other matters all loom large at present—the same issues Malcolm X left dangling at the end of his short life spent articulating black rage and affirming black humanity.

If we are to build on the best of Malcolm X, we must preserve and expand his notion of psychic conversion that cements networks and groups in which black community, humanity, love, care, and concern can take root and grow (the work of bell hooks is the best example). These spaces—beyond the best of black music and black religion—reject Manichean ideologies and authoritarian arrangements in the name of moral visions, subtle analyses of wealth and power, and concrete strategies of principled coalitions and democratic alliances. These visions, analyses, and strategies never lose sight of black rage, yet they focus this rage where it belongs: on any form of racism, sexism, homophobia, or economic injustice that impedes the opportunities of “everyday people” (to use the memorable phrase of Sly and the Family Stone and Arrested Development) to live lives of dignity and decency. For example, poverty can be as much a target of rage as degraded identity.

Furthermore, the cultural hybrid character of black life leads us to highlight a metaphor alien to Malcolm X's perspective—yet consonant with his performances to audiences—namely, the metaphor of jazz. I use the term “jazz” here not so much as a term for a musical art form, as for a mode of being in the world, an improvisational mode of protean, fluid, and flexible dispositions toward reality suspicious of “either/or” viewpoints, dogmatic pronouncements, or supremacist ideologies. To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the
tension with the group—a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project. This kind of critical and democratic sensibility flies in the face of any policing of borders and boundaries of “blackness,” “maleness,” “femaleness,” or “whiteness.” Black people's rage ought to target white supremacy, but also ought to realize that blackness
per se
can encompass feminists like Frederick Douglass or W. E. B. Du Bois. Black people's rage should not overlook homophobia, yet also should acknowledge that heterosexuality
per se
can be associated with so-called “straight” anti-homophobes—just as the struggle against black poverty can be supported by progressive elements of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Malcolm X was the first great black spokesperson who looked ferocious white racism in the eye, didn't blink, and lived long enough to tell America the truth about this glaring hypocrisy in a bold and defiant manner. Unlike Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King, Jr., he did not live long enough to forge his own distinctive ideas and ways of channeling black rage in constructive channels to change American society. Only if we are as willing as Malcolm X to grow and confront the new challenges posed by the black rage of our day will we take the black freedom struggle to a new and higher level. The future of this country may well depend on it.


are living in one of the most frightening moments in the history of this country. Democracies are quite rare and usually short-lived in the human adventure. The precious notion of ordinary people living lives of decency and dignity—owing to their participation in the basic decision making in those fundamental institutions that affect their life chances—is difficult to sustain over space and time. And every historic effort to forge a democratic project has been undermined by two fundamental realities:
The persistence of poverty generates levels of
that deepen social conflict; the escalation of paranoia produces levels of
that reinforce cultural division. Race is the most explosive issue in American life precisely because it forces us to confront the tragic facts of poverty and paranoia, despair and distrust. In short, a candid examination of
matters takes us to the core of the crisis of American democracy. And the degree to which race
in the plight and predicament of fellow citizens is a crucial measure of whether we can keep alive the best of this democratic experiment we call America.

Needless to say, this fragile experiment began by taking for granted the ugly conquest of Amerindians and Mexicans, the exclusion of women, the subordination of European working-class men and the closeting of homosexuals. These realities made many of the words of the revolutionary Declaration of Independence ring a bit hollow. Yet the enslavement of Africans—over 20 percent of the population—served as the linchpin of American democracy; that is, the much-heralded stability and continuity of American democracy was predicated upon black oppression and degradation. Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”—they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. What made America distinctly American for them was not simply the presence of unprecedented opportunities, but the struggle for seizing these opportunities in a new land in which black slavery and racial caste served as the floor upon which white class, ethnic, and gender struggles could be diffused and diverted. In other words, white poverty could be ignored and whites' paranoia of each other could be overlooked primarily owing to the distinctive American feature: the basic racial divide of black and white peoples. From 1776 to 1964—188 years of our 218-year history—this racial divide would serve as a basic presupposition for the expansive functioning of American democracy, even as the concentration of wealth and power remained in the hands of a few well-to-do white men.

The era of the sixties was a watershed period in American history because for the first time we decided as a people to overcome the racial divide
declare war on poverty. Within two years,
barriers against black access to civil and voting rights were erased. Within eight years, half of America's poor people were lifted out of poverty. And within a decade, the number of poor old people was more than cut in half. Contrary to the popular myths about the sixties, this was a brief moment in which we bravely confronted our most explosive issues as a people:
racial hierarchy and the maldistribution of wealth and power.
But it did not last long. As the economy slumped, black rage escalated and white backlash set in. And, for nearly two decades, we witnessed a decline in the real wages of most Americans, a new racial divide in the minds and streets of fellow citizens, a massive transfer of wealth from working people to the well-to-do, and an increase in drugs and guns (along with fear and violence) in American life. Many conservative Republicans played the old racial card to remain in office and most liberal Democrats lacked the courage to tell the truth about the new levels of decline and decay engulfing us. Instead, we as a people tolerated levels of suffering and misery among the disadvantaged (especially among poor children of all colors, caught in a vicious natural lottery!), lost faith in our money-driven political system, and lived lives of hedonistic evasion and narcissistic avoidance as the racial divide expanded and the gaps between rich, poor, and working people increased. We now find ourselves hungry for quick solutions and thirsty for overnight cures for deep economic, cultural, and political problems that were allowed to fester for decades. And, most sadly, we seem to lack the patience, courage, and hope necessary to reconstruct our public life—the very lifeblood of any democracy.

My aim in this book is to revitalize our public conversation about race, in light of our paralyzing pessimism and stultifying cynicism as a people. As a radical democrat, I believe it is late—but maybe not too late—to confront and overcome the poverty and paranoia, the despair and distrust that haunt us. Since democracy is, as the great Reinhold Niebuhr noted, a proximate solution to insoluble problems, I envision neither a social utopia nor a political paradise. My goal is to be as bold and defiant in my criticism of
form of xenophobia, as honest and candid about the need for civil responsibility and social accountability of each one of us, and as charitable and compassionate toward any political perspective from which we can gain insight and wisdom to empower us.

In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and the pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other's throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation—and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or the world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.

—Cornel West


January 1994

BOOK: Race Matters
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